Children Still Best-Served By Broadcast TV
Editor: Continuing what by now is surely the longest-running regulatory debate in broadcast television, I must once again take issue with my friend Harry Jessell’s characterizing mandatory carriage of children’s shows as “pointless.” The present and proposed regulations have a very specific purpose: to provide for the special content needs of preschool-aged children, especially those from low-income families, who otherwise would not be served by free, over-the-air television.
Special content for preschooleers is not a new idea, nor was it dreamed up by some recent gathering of do-gooders. It derives from solid research-based evidence that young children lack the developmental capacity to understand televised content the way adults — or even older kids — can.
Preschoolers may be alternately confused or terrified by slapstick or fantasy violence. And very few young children understand the purpose and motivation of commercial messages vs. program content. All this was well-established even before the 1972 Surgeon General’s Report on Television and Social Behavior.
I concede that rapid changes in technology make it arguably unfair to place this entire burden on broadcasters. But until the FCC and Congress demonstrate the will to extend that task to cable and streaming providers (perhaps by mandating special discounts or reimbursement for eligible households) broadcast regulation remains the only practical tool.
In the meantime, broadcasters would be foolish to protest too much. At some level, even the NAB recognizes that requiring public service in exchange for a broadcast license is not only fair, it’s the main reason that local broadcasters continue to enjoy a special relationship with viewers. While I’m glad the child audience remains a priority, I’d support the possibility of broadening the kidvid regulations to accept other genres of community programming in lieu of cheaply-produced kids fare.
However, I’m not getting my hopes up. In fact, a few years ago, I found myself in a long cocktail line alongside Tom Wheeler, who at the time was still Obama’s FCC Chairman. I asked him if the FCC would ever consider imposing public service requirements on cable, satellite and streaming platforms. His friendly expression changed to a look of deep concern, as if this crazy person with the empty cocktail glass might suddenly turn violent. I let him off the hook, saying “I take it that’s a ‘no?’ ”
“Uh, no,” he agreed.
Oh well. At least I asked.
Arthur Greenwald is a veteran program and promotion producer who often consults with nonprofit groups in the arts, education and health fields. Arthur and his wife Wendy Garen, live in Glendale, Calif., even though, like Harry Jessell, Arthur much prefers Pittsburgh.